Setting the stage: The UC Theatre re-opens with focus on community involvement

AnyaSapozhnikov_UCtheater
Anya Sapozhnikov/Staff

Last May, the boarded-up front door of the UC Theatre was finally painted. “We wanted it to reflect what we were doing,” says David Mayeri, president of Berkeley Music Group. He adds: “It was getting graffitied a lot.”

The result was local muralist R. Black’s simple, eye-catching pronouncement:  “SUPPORT” written in all-caps, yellow against black. The words “music,” “education” and “employment” formed the stems of the two Ps and Rs, a bold mission statement in bumblebee colors. It wasn’t just a graffiti-averting placeholder until the wooden boards were replaced with open doors, but an attention-grabbing promise of community service to the city of Berkeley.

The mural’s trifecta of “music, education, employment” is, in fact, a neat summary of the theater’s goals as it opens to the public after 15 shuttered years.

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Michael Wan / Staff

The theater has been unoccupied since 2001, when its then-owner, the theater chain Landmark Theatres, couldn’t afford the price tag of a required seismic upgrade. It moved out, and the theater was boarded up, bought up by a mysterious entity and eventually given that seismic upgrade. But various plans for the space — a jazz club, for one — fell through.

In 2007, Michael Caplan, economic development manager of the city of Berkeley, approached Mayeri, who was working as the chief operating officer for Bill Graham Presents at the time, about what to do with the empty UC Theatre space. When Mayeri saw the building, he knew exactly what he wanted to create: a music venue.

Music is new to the UC Theatre. It opened in 1917 as a grand movie house whose claim to fame was the “largest screen west of the Mississippi.” In its 84 years of business, the theater’s most popular attractions transitioned from nickelodeons and silent pictures to screenings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The new UC Theatre has been re-envisioned by Mayeri as a music and live performance space, like a “Fillmore for the East Bay.” The difference from its San Francisco counterpart is that this will be run by the Berkeley Music Group, a nonprofit organization that was founded for the theater. The UC Theatre hopes to fill the gap between small, up-and-coming shows and the big names featured at the Greek Theater. The theater has been meticulously outfitted for the change — new sound systems, a dance floor, bars, painted retouches of the old interior by R. Black and a highly intentional design that will give every audience member a clear sound and view.

For all that careful attention, “music” is only one of the three pillars that the theater advertises as a hallmark of its institution. Mayeri is as devoted to “employment” and “education” as he is to the music, and his reasons are personal. When he was 16 years old and a student at Berkeley High School, Bay Area concert promoter Bill Graham Presents offered him $10 an hour to unload trucks, set and tear down stages and usher shows.

“I would’ve paid 10 bucks to do it,” he says.

35 years later, Mayeri got the COO position at Bill Graham Presents that led to his current position as director of the UC Theatre and is in a position to give back to the community and provide young people that same “transformative experience.”

The UC Theatre’s Education Program is a direct result of Mayeri’s early internship. He is paying it forward through a program called Concert Career Pathways, in which youths aged 17 to 25 will be given the opportunity to learn the technical, business and creative aspects of concert promotion. First, they will take a series of free workshops where they will learn the basics of production management, sound engineering and public relations. Then, they will advance into a paid internship program — a rare offering in the bleak landscape of unpaid arts internships. When the interns graduate, the UC Theatre will either hire them or help them locate a job. It is a program built on concrete skills and concrete promises, and it is specifically aimed at the underserved youth of the East Bay.  

“UC Theatre is one of the leaders in valuing youth leadership in meaningful, not token ways.”

— Dan Reilly, director of media arts & innovation at RYSE Center

The program is being spearheaded by Robyn Bykofsky, education director, who has worked in arts education for 15 years. When she first heard about the UC Theatre’s education plan, she knew she wanted to be involved.

Bykofsky manages both the Education Advisory Committee, made up of leaders from local youth organizations, and the Youth Advisory Board, or YAB, made up of local youth. Every member of the Education Advisory Committee is devoted to giving young people the “tools to become leaders,” as Bykofsky herself puts it. Some of the local groups involved in creating the education program alongside UC Theatre staffers are RYSE, a safe space in Richmond devoted to young leadership, and Youth Uprising, an East Oakland community program, among several others.

“UC Theatre is one of the leaders in valuing youth leadership in meaningful not token ways,” says Dan Reilly, the director of media arts and innovation at the RYSE Center, who also sits on the Education Advisory Committee. Reilly says RYSE’s involvement with the UC Theatre was a no-brainer, as RYSE’s education program aligns perfectly with the theater’s insistence on “involving young people from the ground up.”

Reilly is not just talking about the Education Advisory Committee, which brings together some of the Bay Area’s most committed youth organizations, but the YAB, which provides actual young people with a chance to have their voices heard, from the very beginning of the theater’s inception.

The YAB is working alongside the Education Advisory Committee  to create the Concert Career Pathways program. The YAB is made up of 10 17- to 25-year-olds, many from the same organizations that make up the Education Advisory Committee. Because the process is so new, there wasn’t much of a formal application process to become a member of the YAB. Instead, the members found a path to the UC Theatre in very different ways.

DeAndre Evans and Khairee Clark both come from RYSE Center. Evans, 22, is a part-time RYSE staffer, teacher, writer, sound technician, DJ, rapper and actor and hopes to perform on the UC Theatre stage one day. Clark, 20, though involved in RYSE, found out about the UC Theatre through his sound work with the music producer Genesis. He wants to pursue a career in sound and concert work.

Others, however, weren’t involved in any of these local organizations. Bobby Kirwin, a 19-year-old community college student, was a high school theater tech enthusiast who found out about the program from his father, who had worked with Mayeri. Kirwin sent an email expressing interest in the program, and he got in.

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Michael Wan / Staff

Noah Alioto, 20, found out about the program two years ago from his father. His dad had heard about it on the radio and urged his son to apply. Alioto emailed his resume and didn’t hear back for a long time — years, in fact. But when he finally did, the Garage Band-beat-making Marin College student found himself on the YAB, eager to dive into the music industry.

At a March 5 meeting, the 10 board members were discussing logistics, elevator pitches and how to market their work. They came up with a list of buzzwords: “hands-on,” “connections,” “diversity,” “open doors,” “inside info” and “once in a lifetime,” which was met with a good-natured chuckle around the room. The YAB has been working since last summer to build a program to create the “next generation of concert promoters.” It’s about creating opportunities that are fulfilling and exciting, not just a job to trudge through for a paycheck. It is also very intentionally integrated into the operation of the theater from its beginning, with the full and excited support of Mayeri.

“I really commend UC Theatre for building (the education program) into the fabric of their organization,” Reilly says. This is unique in the field, because it’s easy to focus entirely on running a venue, booking shows and managing logistics. But the UC Theatre’s decision to deal with education programs, is, as Reilly puts it, “(choosing) a different path.”

That path hasn’t been without its difficulties. The inaugural concert has been pushed back repeatedly, beginning with the Best Coast/Wavves concert set for March 1, which was delayed because of prolonged construction. A March 25 They Might Be Giants show and a March 26 Trombone Shorty show were both pushed back because of technical difficulties.  Then, there are the day-to-day difficulties of creating a working theater and education program from scratch. None of these are debilitating challenges, and the UC Theatre is set to open Thursday with a show from Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra.

The theater is doing what it can to live up to that mural, to be more than just a theater but an employer, a job creator and a positive force in bustling Downtown Berkeley, a genuine good faith effort to repay a long-ago favor. Decades after a concert promoter opened the door for a high school kid, that kid is giving back.  

Contact Miyako Singer at [email protected].

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